In 1992, with just three councillors, the SNP group found itself the kingmakers on Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council. They extracted a high price for co-operation but it was not for personal gain. They sought – and got – the convenorship of the Education committee and sought – and got – a Scots language co-ordinator to work with schools in the area (Liz Niven, incidentally, a wonderful poet and patriot, in the truest sense of the word). More than that, they gave up their extra responsibility allowances to purchase a Scots language dictionary for every school in the region.
It was a grand gesture that aimed to deliver real action in overcoming residual reluctance in the education system to promote our native language and cultural heritage.
The First Minister’s promise, announced yesterday, to have every child at school in Scotland visit the new Burns museum is similarly grand. But it will amount to little more than a gesture if not backed up by the kind of action called for by the 80 academics and writers in their open letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Education.
As they point out, it is no longer good enough to rely on the enthusiasm or doggedness of individual teachers and schools to ensure that our children are introduced to their cultural heritage in a meaningful and sustained way. The burd was lucky enough to be “taught” Sunset Song for O Grade English; the Big Yin, my older son, who finished school just two years ago, did not encounter a single Scottish text in any of his coursework. In another school, it might have been different. Such inconsistency of approach is not appropriate and the 80 signatories want that changed.
Much progress has been made, not least in the provision of resources for home and school, primarily through the work of Matthew Fitt and James Robertson. Generations of children are now learning to read and count in the Scots language – including my own Boy Wonder – as well as enjoy classic children’s stories in their native tongue. Turning Roald Dahl’s the Twits into the Eejits was inspired frankly.
Moreover, the resources developed for Curriculum for Excellence wil make a big difference but only if schools and teachers are required to use them. If they are allowed to ignore them – or take a pick and mix approach – then they will wither on the vine. These 80 signatories are trying to prevent that happening.
They also want the recommendations of the Working Group on the Scots language implemented. These include appointing a scots language co-ordinator in every local authority area. The post in Dumfries and Galloway is long gone, and without the kind of government back up sought, any such future appointments will be short lived, subject to the vagaries of cultural fashion.
Establishing the working group was a bold move by the SNP government; implementing its recommendations requires even bolder thinking. It is important that our children grow up with a keen sense of identity: of who they are and where they come from and what riches can be derived from the country in which they live. Teaching children this is not about being parochial or trying to limit their horizons: it is about lifting their aspirations and sense of self.
Others have suggested that Scotland suffers from a crisis of confidence and self-worth that manifests itself in poor health and well being outcomes – the Glasgow factor. Encouraging children to enjoy and embrace their cultural heritage not only opens their minds to the possibilities of literary riches in other cultures, but might also help address other more deep seated social problems. The burd grew up in a school environment where the use of Scots dialect – in particular, the wonderful Galloway Irish dialect – was literally beaten out of children. Many words and phrases common in my childhood are now absent from conversation.
Undoubtedly in these austerity times, the justified cry will be where is the money to come from? The burd suggests that the cost of implementing the First Minister’s grand Burns gesture will be as much as paying for 32 local authority – or fewer if regional posts are a way of stretching the money further – Scots language co-ordinators. Which is the more meaningful and substantial proposal, and therefore worthy of our investment?